Even before the latest Kentucky Derby odds are released for the horses in the Run for the Roses, engineers are busy making sure the track is ready to host the biggest event of the year. That doesn’t necessarily mean a manicured infield or grading the dirt at Chruchill Downs, but rather the technology advances that have been integrated into the facility over recent years.
Like virtually every other sport, horse racing has also taken a more analytical approach in recent years. Obviously the horse, trainer, and jockey still have to come through on their end, but stats, data, and information monitoring help that happen. Even the track itself has undergone a lot of technological remodels over the years, so let’s take a look at the synergy between horse racing and tech:
It may sound miniscule, but in a horse race that can be decided by fractions of a second it’s very important to have a consistent start process. Prior to the 1940s gates were manually opened by track employees and the process didn’t always go smoothly. Can you imagine the frustration of the horse you bet on getting off to a whirlwind start only to get called back because somebody else in the field’s gate didn’t open?
Getting Finishes Exactly Right
There’s millions wagered on the Kentucky Derby each May, so officials best be sure they’ve declared the right winner. That’s not always easy when horses finish nearly neck and neck which is why “we have a photo finish” is the most exciting phrase you hear at any track but especially Churchill Downs. Prior to the photo finish, a manual judge determined the winner and we know how corrupt the Olympics or boxing can be with manual judging.
The technology behind the photo finish is interesting, because naturally with the way that shutters work horses on the outside always appeared to finish ahead, kind of like an optical illusion. Now motion censored digital cameras capture the exact moment that the winner finishes (hopefully) eliminating all disagreement.
Churchill Downs could be dubbed the Ft. Knox of horse racing tracks the way that nearly every inch of the grounds is monitored by surveillance cameras. Believe it or not, cheating was relatively common back in the day in the racing industry. Tactics such as shoving sponges in the nose of an opposing horse so that they could breathe but not fully was one of the many relatively undetectable ways for crooks to get an advantage in a race.
You could not only sabotage a horse to hinder its performance but shoot it up with drugs that will be detectable after a race and ruin the reputation of a rival trainer. The accuracy of drug testing is another technological advance, since horses don’t willfully dope up its important to know the difference between required meds and performance enhancing ones.
The questions about horse racing surfaces is one that is often debated. For example synthetic tracks that were designed to be easier on horses in training and in events outside of the U.S. The problem with that though was that horses ran much faster out of the gate on synthetic tracks and their muscle memory would adjust to that, but then be hindered and borderline dangerous when running on dirt or the clay of Churchill Downs.
A biomechanical hoof tester was developed about a decade ago to simulate a horse’s stride and use subsequent radar to analyze the surface of a track. This helps grounds crews determine if changes need to be made especially before a race the magnitude of the Kentucky Derby. The goal is to limit injuries to horses.
We’ve seen a lot of biometric testing in sports like football and basketball where an athlete’s performance can be analyzed and evaluated in real-time. That may not have an effect in horse racing considering there’s a big difference between four quarters of play and the fastest two minutes in sports – but rest assured stables are giving it a try to see how they can benefit from advanced testing and other technological breakthroughs.